Court rejects drilling in Upper Desolation Canyon

Oct 5, 2016

The Upper Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River offers opportunities for solitude, flatwater boating, and camping for both families and river runners alike.

Photo by Ray Bloxham.
A federal judge has rejected a natural gas project on public lands along the Upper Desolation Canyon on the Green River in eastern Utah.

The plan is part of the highly controversial Gasco Natural Gas Development Project, which the Bureau of Land Management approved in 2012. That decision initially approved nearly 1,300 new oil and gas wells in Utah’s greater Desolation Canyon region. This 16-well project was one of the first site-specific authorizations to follow.

“This decision not only sends the 16-well project back to the drawing board, it calls into question any drilling approved under the larger Gasco project,” said Stephen Bloch, Legal Director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.  “The court was clear that BLM cannot view the environmental impacts of drilling these 16 wells in isolation.  Rather, it needs to consider those impacts in combination with the regional impacts of drilling more than 28,000 wells BLM predicts could be developed over the next 10 years.”

The “Gasco project” was heavily criticized in editorials across the country upon its approval in 2012.  Critics claimed it was unnecessarily destructive and failed to strike a compromise between natural gas development and protecting one of America’s great treasures. The Gasco project was also roundly decried by congressional leaders, the outdoor industry, and environmental leaders, who called on the Interior Department to protect Desolation Canyon while allowing a reasonable level of development in less sensitive areas.

“There are places in America that are simply too wild to drill, that should never become home to well pads, large trucks, pump jacks, and the noise and destruction these activities can cause when located in the wrong places,” said Phil Hanceford, Assistant Director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center.  “The judge’s decision reflects what we have long believed, and our legal case proves – the BLM did not seriously consider the impacts that drilling these wells would have on the area.”

The 16-well project was slated for construction on three drilling pads adjacent to the Upper Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River—a section of water that offers opportunities for families and river runners to enjoy solitude between high canyon walls, sandy beaches and groves of cottonwood trees.

Additionally, BLM’s approval of the Gasco project and the 16-well project came at a time when eastern Utah had experienced several years of record high winter-time ozone levels that are largely the result of oil and gas development.  The decision found BLM’s forecast of ozone pollution inaccurate and inadequate.

“This sends a clear message that BLM cannot ignore the serious air pollution in the Uinta Basin,” said Sharon Buccino, director of NRDC’s Land and Wildlife program. “The area has been so plagued by ozone pollution problems, which are closely linked with oil and gas development, that the Basin is on the cusp of being declared in ‘nonattainment’ for ozone, and will require significant steps to protect human health and the environment.  That’s the kind of situation we see in big industrial cities—not on our treasured public lands.”

More on the Gasco project:
The BLM has described the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness as one of the largest unprotected roadless complexes in the lower 48 states.  The area, which surrounds the Desolation Canyon stretch of the Green River, is awe-inspiring, with spectacular, endless vistas, and opportunities for solitude. In approving the so-called Gasco Energy, Inc. development project, the Interior Department authorized 215 new wells, along with roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure in an area that conservationists and federal officials agree is wilderness-caliber landscape.

The project was approved over significant opposition by the Environmental Protection Agency, congressional leaders, and tens of thousands of citizens across the country, who called upon the Interior Department to approve an alternative proposal that would have allowed for more than 1,100 new natural gas wells and protected the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness.

Phil Hanceford
303-225-4636

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